What's this "Gap Year" Thing I Keep Hearing About?

Because the idea of a gap year is gaining popularity among college students, you may have heard about it, but may be unsure about what exactly entails a gap year. A gap year is a period of time in which a student may pursue short term opportunities as a transition between his or her undergraduate career and full time employment or enrollment in a graduate program. 

 A Gap Year…

  • Is also known as: “taking a year off” or “pursuing short term work opportunities”
  • Is different than searching for a traditional, long-term job in that your search depends completely upon your design for your year. Positions can be found through formal organizations, or through informal connections.
  • May include formal programs that differ in type of work. Some examples are teaching in low-income communities with Teach for America, providing disaster relief with Americorps, or traveling abroad through BUNAC.
  • Varies in length, from a summer to a number of years. The choice is yours!
  • Can be divided into several segments of work, travel, or study.
  • Should be meaningful- tie your experience back to your over-arching career goals.

Reasons to Pursue a Gap Year 

Experiences gained during this period of time can be a valuable opportunity to gain additional preparation for future endeavors. Students participate in community service programs, travel, or short term work experiences for a variety of reasons. Not knowing what to do after graduation is not a good reason to pursue a gap year. Below are some of reasons a gap year may be a good fit for you.

  • Desire to “give back” or be of service to communities in need
  • Seeking immersion in a new culture (ethnically, geographically, socioeconomically)
  • Seeing the world from the perspective of the population with whom one works
  • Developing skills to strengthen a graduate/professional school application
  • Acquiring professional skills in a challenging work environment
  • Doing work one finds especially meaningful, interesting, and/or “different” before pursuing career path
  • Solidifying or discovering long-term career goals by exploring fields of interest

Factors to Consider

The following list contains factors you should consider as you begin to plan your gap year. Knowing what you are looking for can be a big help in identifying programs, jobs, or volunteering experiences.

  • Time commitment: How much time are you able to commit? Would you prefer a program/positions that is renewable after an initial commitment?
  • Financial situation: Some programs/positions charge fees, some meet basic needs and provide health insurance, some include benefits and a salary, and some provide loan deferral. What are your financial needs and expectations?
  • Job / career interests: What kind of work would you like to do? How might this work connect with your future career goals?
  • Location: Do you prefer to work in an urban, rural, or international setting? Do you want to experience more than one possible location?
  • Housing situation: Would you prefer to live in a community of  volunteers, with a family, on your own?
  • Support network: In the challenging work you may encounter, you may need both institutional and personal support.  How do you anticipate finding such support – both formally and informally?
  • Program/Position stability and reputation: If you choose to affiliate with a company or program, how important is it to you that the organization is large, well-established, and continuing indefinitely?
  • Connection to religious / spiritual traditions: Some opportunities are sponsored by faith communities and incorporate spirituality or religious features into the experience.  Do you prefer work that includes a spiritual/religious component or not? To what degree would you be comfortable sharing your beliefs and/or spiritual perspectives with others?

Frequently Asked Questions

Are fee-based gap year organizations worth exploring?

These organizations can be expensive. However, fee-based organizations often make planning your gap year more convenient, especially if you intend to travel. Whether it’s finding you housing, placing you with a host organization, or helping you secure the proper visas, working with fee-based organizations can often be the easiest and safest option for traveling internationally.

How do I find out more about these programs?
After you’ve identified some opportunities either through hearing about opportunities from peers and or your own online research, continue to investigate each by carefully reading the program’s website.  If you have questions, call or email the organization via contact information on their website. If possible, locate alumni of the particular program you are considering and conduct informational interviews in order gain first-hand information. Often, alumni can be referred through the program or found on professional networks, such as

How do I evaluate programs?
It is important to research and evaluate potential programs before making final decisions. As you narrow down your selections, we recommend that you…  
  • Contact the organization, download materials and an application from their website, and speak with someone who represents the program.  Do they sound organized, professional, and trustworthy? Does the program provide what you are looking for? What is the quality level of their correspondence with you?
  • Visit the program/community/sample work site if possible.
  • Conduct Informational Interviews with a few current and former participants. Ask them about their work, their support network, compensation, difficulties and frustrations. More information on conducting informational interviews can be found on www.auburn.edu/career Below are some sample questions to consider asking specifically in evaluating gap year programs.

  • Describe the type of person who flourishes in this program. Describe your fellow participants’ background.
  • What is a typical day like for you? What skills have you acquired in this work?
  • What are the program’s greatest strengths and weaknesses? 
  • What makes for a strong applicant? If selected, what can I do to prepare beforehand? 
  • How is the program / position viewed among the population served?
  • What do participants typically do after completing the program?
  • What kind of personal and institutional support does the program provide?

How do employers view candidates who take a gap year?
As long as a gap year has a purpose, many employers view time off favorably. As a job candidate, focus on demonstrating the real-world experience gained in your gap year in your resume, cover letter, and interview. Additionally, with your experience, you can better articulate your reasons for applying to a particular position. Finally, a gap year can offer opportunities to build transferable skills (such as communication and leadership), through situations that challenge you to navigate adversity or to learn about a different culture.

How do graduate school admissions officers view applicants that take a year off?
Many medical/graduate schools view a year off as a means for students to gain maturity, as well as a more concrete understanding of professional goals. Further, students may find that taking a year off provides the opportunity to address any potential shortcoming in their application, such as gaining more exposure to the field, re-taking coursework, expanding research experience or pursuing volunteer and/or shadowing opportunities of interest. As an applicant, focus on demonstrating the benefits of your gap year through your application and interview.

When should I begin planning my gap year?
Depending on the design of your gap year, you should begin planning a year to six months in advance. Be aware of application deadlines for programs of interest (many application deadlines are in December), giving yourself plenty of time to develop quality application materials. Regardless of when you begin investigating programs and positions, start developing a financial plan as soon as possible. It’s important to be financially prepared for unforeseen circumstances.

Reflection and Decision Making

Take some time to respond to the following questions as you make decisions to design your gap year.  Knowing your values, interests, skills, and needs is important as you evaluate options.
  • What draws you to volunteer or community service work?
  • What do you hope to gain from such an experience?
  • What do you hope to contribute to the community with whom you work?
  • How do you anticipate the experience fitting with who you are and who you hope to become?
  • What would you like to get out of your gap year?
  • Is there something you could do to make your graduate/medical school application stand out a little more?
  • What current skill might be missing from your resume in regards to your future career?
  • Do you see this as a chance to serve a particular cause or community? Or perhaps you want to live overseas. What would you like included in this experience?

Making the Most of Your Gap Year

  • Keep in touch with your current support network. Keep family and friends informed about the nature and purpose of your position so they can advocate for your work.
  • Keep an open mind and expect the unexpected. Use challenges as opportunities to learn more about yourself and to see the world from a new perspective.
  • Try to learn as much as possible about the population with whom you work – culture, history, geography, customs, language, beliefs.
  • Try to learn as much as possible about fellow participants- their career paths and personal goals. Developing new relationships can help you learn more about yourself, as well as foster support and community.
  • Take advantage of opportunities to learn new skills and keep a record of what you’ve accomplished. Use this record to update your resume in your future application process as you consider grad school and/or other employment positions.
  • Maintain the relationships you formed over your gap year experience. Your new network can serve as references, future employers, and continued support.

With reflection, research, and some hard work, you can make your decision to take a gap year both personally meaningful and professionally beneficial! As always, feel free to further discuss your options with a career counselor at the Auburn University Career Center to explore options. Information on appointments, walk-in hours, and resources can be found on our website: www.aurburn.edu/career

Written by Shari Black
Graduate Assistant in the Career Center

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